“Charlotte’s Web” (1973): A Classic Tale of True Friendship and Love

Updated on April 14, 2020
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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

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Charlotte’s Web is an animated children’s film released in 1973 by Paramount Pictures and is based on the children’s book of the same name by E. B. White

Fun fact: in the library catalog, the author’s name is actually listed as “White, E.B.” Web!

Ahem.

Charlotte’s Web is a beloved classic and one of my favorite animated films probably since I was five. I have always loved the characters, the voice acting, and the great songs, but most of all, I have always loved the theme of true love and friendship.

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Charlotte (Debbie Reynolds) is a spider who knew she was going to die but kept it to herself, choosing to live her last days happy and encouraging everyone around her to be happy, while selflessly and tirelessly working to save the life of a friend.

She is one of the noblest fictional characters there ever was . . . and she’s a spider.

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I think that’s what I love most about this story. The author took a spider – one of the most hated living creatures on the planet – and wrote a story where it was noble and good and kind and brave.

That’s the thing, though: animals are just animals. None of them are “evil” or “bad.” But we humans love assigning human characteristics to them. We see spiders as evil because we hate the way they look.

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Likewise with rats.

I recall there being a mouse craze in the 90s where little (male) mice were the lead characters in just about every film, every book, every cartoon. We had The Rescuers Downunder, The Secret of Nimh, the entire Redwall franchise, Fivel Goes West, Mouse Hunt, The Green Mile, A Tale of Despereaux (came a bit later, I’ll admit), Steward Little, Ralph S. Mouse. . . .

Mice, mice, mice, mice.

And in these stories with mousey leads, the rats were always evil!

In real life, rats are sweet, sociable, and intelligent. They would make wonderful pets if only they lived a little longer. But they have a bad rap because they destroy crops and spread disease.

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But what harm do spiders do aside from being ugly to us? Sure, some of them are deadly and they bite, but that usually happens when we go blundering into their territory. I’ve never heard of a Black Widow actually coming inside someone’s house – and I live in the desert.

Spiders are actually quite useful. As Charlotte says in the film itself, spiders balance the insect population and keep the planet from being overrun.

Could you imagine if nature created creatures that ate humans whenever we grew too numerous? Instead, nature just pops out a few gays. We should be grateful, really. If not for gay people, there would be some giant equivalent of a spider out there killing people and drinking their blood.

Basically, if it weren’t for gay people, vampires would exist.

You’re welcome.

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Though Charlotte is technically the titular character, she is actually the secondary character. Wilbur (Henry Gibson) is the main character. The film opens with him being born on Fern’s farm. He’s a runt who probably won’t survive without help, so Fern’s father – rather than nursing the pig to a healthy size – has decided to murder him with an axe.

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I realize this is standard behavior on a farm, but to me, it’s just normalized violence. The way humans treat animals – especially farm animals – is reprehensible, and I can’t help but agree with Fern that what her father intends to do is horrible.

Fern’s father, moved by her tears, gives her Wilbur to raise.

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The film’s first fifteen to twenty minutes are sweetly sentimental as Fern (Pamelyn Ferdin ) raises Wilbur from a baby to an adult. She loves Wilbur, and Wilbur sees Fern as his mother.

A song plays to a montage of images as Fern plays with Wilbur, cares for him, and loves him:

“This something more I’m feeling must be love.”

Let me pause here to say that the songs in this film were absolutely wonderful. I can’t think of one I don’t like. I’ve always loved them all.

"I Can Talk!' Song

Wilbur eventually gets so big that Fern’s father sends him away to her uncle’s farm, and that’s how Wilbur meets Charlotte.

When Wilbur first arrives at Zuckerman’s farm, he is unaware that he could talk. Looking back on the film now, this actually makes complete sense. Wilbur was raised by a human, with no other pigs around, so no one ever told him that he could talk . . . whatever language it is the animals seem to speak. Instead, he just snorts through his piggy nose.

The goose tells Wilbur that he could “probably-obably” talk if he wanted to. Wilbur tries to speak, and when he finally does, he bursts into song:

“Isn’t it greaaaaat that I articulate?”

Another wonderful song.

We are then introduced to a plethora of amusing characters.

That’s another thing I love about this film: the characters are pretty entertaining, if not well-developed. It’s remarkable because this is a short film based on a children’s book. Most of the time, the movie version of a book never quite gets it right. This film pulled off the characters wonderfully, I thought.

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There was the old sheep (Dave Madden), who was always grumpy and complaining. Hilariously enough, he was pretty intelligent for a sheep. Sheep are stereotyped to be stupid, pea-brained cowards, vulnerable to the deadly and intelligent wolf. It’s the reason why people who can’t think for themselves are referred to as sheep.

But the old sheep in this story – while a grumpy jerk most of the time – is also very intelligent (not wise, intelligent. There’s a difference). He knows how to spell in English, something the other barn animals can’t seem to manage. He is the one who correctly spells “Terrific” for Charlotte.

The old sheep also advises Wilbur on how to behave like a normal animal. The humans expect him to struggle when he’s loaded into a crate for the fair – like a normal pig – but because Wilbur isn’t a normal pig, he’s fully prepared to simply step in the crate.

It’s kind of . . . backwards. Charlotte goes through a great deal of trouble to make Wilbur seem like a special pig, somehow worthy of a longer life than most farm pigs. But when it comes time for him to prove it, he’s encouraged to act like a normal pig!

This logical fallacy shows that the arrogant old sheep isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

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I’ve always loved the goose (Agnes Moorehead). The way she echoes her own voice as if she were her own personal well (“You probably-obably could if you tried, tried ,tried!”) is the most amusing thing.

Like the old sheep, the goose is clever and proud. She manipulates Templeton(the selfish rat living under Wilbur’s trough) by telling him about all the food at the fair. She is also quite confident in her poor spelling abilities, showing that – like the old sheep – she overestimates herself and isn’t remotely aware of it.

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Templeton (Paul Lynde), being a rat, was given the typical depiction: sly, intelligent, selfish, and callously indifferent to Wilbur’s plight.

When Wilbur is told by the old sheep that he’s going to be turned into crispy bacon, Templeton shrugs and goes on about his business. This is presented as Templeton being uncaring and selfish, but really, why should he worry about Wilbur?

Asking Templeton to care about Wilbur is like expecting your neighbor, who you never speak to and don’t even like, to suddenly give a crap when you announce you have cancer. The best your neighbor is going to do is give their condolences and then go on with their life. Why should they care that you have cancer? Especially when your dog kept crapping in their yard?

Likewise, Wilbur isn’t Templeton’s friend. Wilbur doesn’t even like him! But Templeton’s constantly expected to drop everything he’s doing and wring his hands (or er, paws) over Wilbur whenever Charlotte demands it?

At one point, Templeton refuses to come to one of Charlotte’s meetings, and she tricks him into nearly getting eaten by a cat. Charlotte is mostly presented as a decent enough person, but when you think about it, what she did was pretty messed up.

Always come to Charlotte’s meetings – or she’ll try to kill you.

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That said, I find Templeton to be one of the most interesting characters in the film, simply because he doesn’t worship Wilbur. He is one of the few background characters who refuses to act like a background character. Instead of the protagonist being the center of his life, Templeton has his own life and his own crap to do!

Templeton’s lack of interest in the protagonist and his (initial) refusal to participate in Wilbur’s story make him probably the most realistic character in the film – and he’s a talking rat.

"Mother Earth, Father Time"

The voice acting was also pretty good in this film.

Debbie Reynolds was perfect as Charlotte. I loved it whenever she sang. My favorite song in the entire film is probably the lullaby she sings to Wilbur:

“How very special are we

for just a moment to be

part of life’s

eternal rhyme.

How very special are we

to have on our family tree

Mother Earth

and Father Time.”

Charlotte sings a reprisal of the song at the film’s end, as she is dying. Wilbur then bullies Templeton into bringing him Charlotte’s egg sack, and when the eggs hatch back on the farm, all of Charlotte’s children leave – except for three daughters.

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Charlotte’s daughters are introduced as Joy, Arainia, and Nelly. We are told by the narrator (Rex Allen) that the girls stay with Wilbur their entire lives, and when they die, they go on to lay egg sacks of their own.

Wilbur’s life has been saved by Charlotte’s web, so he is now free to play spider dad to these tiny children, living his life peaceful and content on Zuckerman’s farm. And though he loves Charlotte’s children and grandchildren, no one could ever replace her.

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I love it when the narrator says that a true friend is rare, and Charlotte had been the truest. Unfortunately, it’s just a fact of life that good friends – real friends, the kind that stick by you through thick and thin – are hard to come by.

Wilbur was some lucky, terrific, radiant, humble thinga-muh-jinga-muh pig.

Charlotte's Web (1973)
Charlotte's Web (1973)
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